Change at the Barbershop
The major theme running through Barbershop 2: Back in Business is the relative value of change. That I can even begin a review with such a sentence shows what an admirable job Kevin Rodney Sullivan did in inheriting the story and characters from writer Mark Brown and director Tim Story's first Barbershop. Sullivan directs the sequel with a purpose in mind and doesn't fall prey to dreaded "sequelitis," the tendency to create a follow-up that merely cashes in on a limited number of elements that won over audiences from the first movie.
You see, that would have been too easy to do -- Barbershop was an unexpected hit, and we all know what happens with an unexpected hit. The execs start analyzing it to find out what they did right, and too frequently they come up with simplistic answers. Here, they could have pointed to the funny nonconformity of Cedric the Entertainer's rabblerousing character, Eddie; or the lively debates in the shop that were controversial enough to attract the attention of Jesse Jackson, who brought upon the positive, community-driven film an unfair and distracting spotlight. And with the commercials for Barbershop 2 focusing mostly on wars-of-words between Cedric and newcomer Queen Latifah, I was prepared for a tedious movie up-playing crass commentary for the sake of crass commentary.
Thankfully, Sullivan and screenwriter Don D. Scott (who co-wrote the first movie) didn't allow this to happen. Sullivan clearly has his own ideas, but wisely uses the established characters to flesh them out instead of making them act out of character for his purposes. Since the first movie was about the value of community and people (specifically contrasted against the value of money), Sullivan takes things in a natural direction for the second movie by exploring how the community stands up to inevitable "progress." Scott's plot is mainly about how a major chain salon is about to open up across the street from Calvin's (Ice Cube) shop, a story we've seen cheapened a million times that gets a humorous and touching treatment in Sullivan and Scott's hands.
Sullivan also takes the opportunity to illustrate points about change through the presentation of the movie itself. From the outset, viewers will notice stylistic differences between the first movie and this one. Sullivan uses more visual tricks, the most effective of which are the black-and-white flashbacks with selective patches of color. This flashier version of Barbershop feels like an updated change, perhaps unnecessary, but it also doesn't obscure the film's heart -- its meld of personalities, conflicts, and reinforcement of positive values. Change isn't bad when the people most affected by it are respected, and this comes through in both the story and the presentation.
One can make the case that Barbershop 2 could've used more tightening up. Sullivan's stylistic flourishes are a bit inconsistent -- there are some unnecessary uses of shaky hand-held cameras and jump-cuts that show up in a few isolated places, feeling jarring as a result. Some of the sudden b&w-to-color switching leaves you wondering why it happened when it did. Following multiple characters and subplots does create a meandering feel on occasion. The most glaring unnecessary element, however, is the inclusion of Queen Latifah and her next-door beauty shop. Her insertion emerges as a blatant excuse to spin off a franchise of her own (Beauty Shop is in the works). The character feels out of place, doesn't do anything to enhance the story or its themes, and interrupts the movie's otherwise organic flow.
With or without Latifah, Barbershop 2 is one of those rare sequels that can stand up and apart from its predecessor. Cedric is given his fair share of time to drone on about miscellaneous subjects, but Sullivan remembers to anchor the film with Ice Cube's thoughtful and lovable Calvin. Last time, Calvin watched the discussions fly and realized there was a treasure to be found in his father's shop; that is, he found its identity. Now his struggle to retain that identity in the face of great change reflects the similar struggle of today's black communities -- they have forged their identities, but in the eagerness to embrace progress, those identities are sometimes forgotten and left behind. Kudos to Sullivan for giving the surprise hit Barbershop a sequel with its own brain but the same heart.
(Released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and rated "PG-13" for language, sexual material and brief drug references.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.